Shine A Light
As we turn the corner into the major fall contemporary auctions this week, I wanted to take a moment to direct your attention to a flare recently sent up in the secondary market’s lingering darkness. That flare is an online conversion calculator called GAVEL–an acronym for “Generate Auction Valuation Extra Levy”–which will be helpful to anyone trying to maintain a little extra perspective in the sector during this season’s public resale bonanza.
Created by Felix Salmon and the developers at Fusion, GAVEL’s purpose is as simple as its etymology is awkward. Think of it as a combination currency converter and reality check. Just select the appropriate auction house for a particular sale, punch in the final reported price of an auction lot dealt there, and the app (or “widget,” as Salmon refers to it on the page) automatically strips out all of the house’s associated back-end commissions and leaves you with its hammer price, i.e. the actual winning bid in the room.
For instance, try plugging in the $58.4M record price for Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) at Christie’s New York last fall, and GAVEL will inform you that the hammer price for the piece was truthfully “only” an even $52M. That means the price typically paraded overhead by pundits (myself included) like the bride and groom in their “Hava Nagila” chairs during a Jewish wedding actually includes an additional $6.4M in commissions. Those commissions constitute the rarely discussed “buyer’s premium” automatically tacked onto the hammer price by the auction house after the fact–in this case, a cool 11% “of the winning bid.
I should note that GAVEL works in both directions. Punching in the hammer price will automatically trigger the app to spit out the price with premium included. I just see far less utility in this feature for the average observer. Practically all of the official auction reporting will only ever regurgitate the prices with premiums baked in, thereby obscuring the real bids under a layer of stomach acid. It seems to me that much more value lies in seeing what’s typically hidden. But if you’re in the auction room or following hammer prices on Twitter and want to stay one step ahead of the publicity machine, GAVEL is your dance partner.
Whether breakouts like these make the art market seem more or less crazy is, I think, a matter of personal opinion. If nothing else, though, consider GAVEL a weapon you can use to cut through the bullshit in the pending onslaught of record price announcements like Ash’s chainsaw arm in Evil Dead 2.
That may not seem like much of a win given the depth of the blackness still permeating the industry as a whole, even in the ostensibly self-reporting auction sector. But every kernel of information spreading freely through the art market makes a difference. If GAVEL indicates the direction we’re turning–however slowly–then it’s worth celebrating nonetheless.